Druidry and Politics
by Philip Carr-Gomm
On radical Druidry: Stukeley was (at first) a pagan Neoplatonist who disapproved of the intolerance of Christianity; Iolo a pacificist and republican, who was regarded as dangerous by the government and held a Gorsedd of Bards that was broken up by mounted militiamen; William Price a revolutionary who plotted to overthrow the state by an armed uprising, did not believe in marriage or Christianity, and won a law case that made cremation possible in the UK; George Watson (Macgregor) Reid a radical socialist who incited workers to strike and native peoples in North Africa to resist Western imperialism. The claimed list of Chosen Chiefs is a roll-call of radicals and freethinkers.
~ Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, Bristol University
At this critical time in world history I believe it is important to examine how we relate to the world of politics. It is easy to say that it has nothing to do with spirituality. But is this really so? In thinking about what a Druid’s relationship to politics might be, I looked back at the attitudes of previous Chiefs, and discovered a remarkably consistent thread of beliefs, that led them all to promote liberal and socialist ideals advocate freedom and justice for the underprivileged (Please note that the term ‘socialist’ is used with British not American understanding). In the nineteenth century Gerald Massey campaigned against slavery in the US, and is now a hero of Afro-American scholars. In the early twentieth century George Watson MacGregor Reid championed the rights of working men, and stood for election in the American Senate and the British Parliament, as well as leading the Druid Order.
I know the most about my predecessor, Ross Nichols, who continued this tradition by championing monetary reform, pacifism and socialism. Ross was a man of ideals – which he not only articulated but which he practiced throughout his life: he believed passionately in the need for us to return to a closer relationship with Nature, and for the need for us to retreat often to the countryside, to living on the land in as simple a way as possible. And he did this by embracing the philosophy of Naturism and by creating his own woodland sanctuary of utter simplicity. He also devoted the latter years of his life to articulating and practising Druidry – a spirituality which has as its aim this return to a communion with the natural world.
Ross showed his love of nature in his poetry, in his writing of much of the Order’s seasonal rituals, in his painting, and in his frequent retreats to the woods. His vegetarianism was another expression of his reverence for life, as was his pacifism – he wanted nothing killed deliberately, human or animal. And above all, he didn’t want all this just for himself – he had a political and social conscience that meant his idealism was not unrealistic, selfish or elitist. He wanted everyone to benefit from the ideals he believed in – hence his commitment to socialism and the Social Credit movement, which attempted to completely re-vision the way we deal with money. In other words his idealism was practical – it was grounded in his actions and behaviour as well as in his philosophy and in his heart.
Those same ideals are alive today: the ‘back to nature’ philosophy has taken on an urgency uncontemplated in Ross’ time, when the extent of environmental degradation was not yet fully appreciated; the ideas of fairer wealth distribution behind the Social Credit movement drive the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements of today; and the reverence for life that Ross showed in his vegetarianism and pacifism, continue to inspire people around the world and have broadened to include the advocacy of organic (and compassionate) farming, and such related movements as that of Permaculture and of resistance to genetic modification.
Ross, like those of his contemporaries who dared to challenge authority, embraced ideals – and acted upon them – which have created the cornerstones of contemporary Alternative Culture. And now – to a great extent because of the mess that ‘conventional wisdom’ has created for us – the challenge for those of us who also embrace these ideals is to build upon the work of our spiritual and political ancestors, such as Ross, so that one day these ideals are no longer ‘alternative’ and therefore marginalised. Excitingly, the process has already begun.
Until recently, those of us in the Druid community have concentrated on building a sense of community, creating structures and ways of teaching that focus primarily on our own spiritual and personal development – helping ourselves take charge of our reality and develop it in positive creative ways. Now, I believe it is time to expand our focus to include more than just ourselves. This means accepting that we have an influence in the world, that we can change things for the better, that we don’t have to be passive consumers, and that being a spiritual being on earth doesn’t involve simply working on our own spiritual development. In short it means dipping our toes into the wider sea, and engaging those two contentious areas of politics and beliefs.
I used to groan when I heard the word politics. I used to run a mile when I smelt a whiff of politics in an organisation or group. But over the years I discovered that where two or more people are gathered together there are politics, and I stopped running away, because unless you become a hermit, there’s nowhere to go! Any relationship, if it is to be more than superficial, runs into politics – by virtue of being human we have different views and opinions, and we have to negotiate, compromise sometimes, refuse to compromise at other times, give in, stand firm and so on. Likewise in a group. It is simply naïve to think that a group of people can run anything without sometimes disagreeing or needing to negotiate. Rather than pretending politics isn’t relevant to spirituality, I think it’s time for us to recognise that it is an integral part of it, since politics is about being human. If you’re having difficulty with this, change the word to community. World Politics becomes the World Community and the difficulties and challenges it faces. We all know now that we are one People on one Earth and if we’re not careful we might just mess the whole thing up completely.
In the times we live in, there is a powerful sense that we stand at a crossroads – at a threshold in the story of humanity. Suggesting that this is of no concern to us, or that as spiritual seekers we shouldn’t be concerned with politics seems very much like denial to me at this point in our history.
But how on earth do we engage this issue without it degenerating into us all standing up and shouting out our different political opinions?
My suggestion is that we try to engage the issue at a different level – there are plenty of forums for political debate already. I think instead we can take two words and use them as keys: one is Community, as I’ve just mentioned. The other is Justice – expanded so that we see it in its widest sense. Druidry has always been concerned with Justice – in the old days Druids were judges and law-makers. And if we expand the concept to include Social Justice and Economic Justice we can start to see what the term implies.
Some people object to the concept of the ‘Love of Justice’ in the Druid’s Prayer, believing it allies Druidry with the sometimes repressive forces of law and order and the Establishment. But all you need to do is look at the Amnesty International literature, or to think of the terrible injustices inflicted on so many people all over the world, to understand what the prayer is really referring to, and how for a Druid the love of Justice is fundamental.
Our world is so full of social and economic injustices of every kind, that it seems to me that a spirituality where Justice is a key concept, and where its early practitioners were actually responsible for administering justice, can quite legitimately begin to engage the big question of ‘How can we build a more just world?’
And this big question immediately raises another one: ‘What would our world look like if there was more justice? How would we live?’ These questions move us towards the exciting and creative area of envisioning the future and of trying to create a better way of living together – of community.
Of course when we’re faced with tragic and sad news from so many corners of the globe where war, suffering, poverty and famine exist, it seems too big a task to even begin. But we must begin – in however small a way. Remember: ‘No snowflake ever feels it started the avalanche’.
Earlier on I mentioned that we need to dip our toes (minds and hearts might be better parts of the anatomy really) into two contentious areas. The first was politics, and the second was beliefs.
The two are related, because you can’t develop political ideals and practical applications of them in the community without beliefs. But again I can hear the groan I used to let out at the word ‘belief’. I was attracted to Druidism because it didn’t offer ‘beliefs’ or a ‘belief-system’…and I had seen so much suffering caused by people holding on (to the death sometimes) to beliefs that ran counter to other peoples’. Just as thinking about ‘how can we build better communities?’ is more creative than thinking ‘what are my political opinions?’ So the solution for me regarding beliefs is to ask myself ‘What are my values?’ rather than ‘What do I believe?’
Behind politics, lie beliefs, behind beliefs lie core values. As a first step in engaging these issues I think it would be helpful for us as Druids – with all the diversity that we represent – to define our core values. As an Order we’ve recently done that with the concept of Love. Now, spurred on by recent world events, we’ve done the same thing for Peace, and we’re working on clarifying our values in relation to Justice and ‘Reverence for Nature’ – getting to the ideas behind our Environmental Responsibility Campaign and Sacred Grove Planting Programme.
These are, of course, very small steps. But if you believe in the magical concept that ideas are causal to physical manifestation – then getting our ideas right is the vital first step. As we see so tragically now, certain ideas are causing great suffering and distress around the world. But since as human beings we can’t stop ourselves having ideas and ideals, the very least we can do is try to have good ones – ones which result in the creation of a better world.
The challenge for us as Druids is to come out of the closet, and to start envisioning the future we want with clarity. That is, after all, one of the purposes of magic. I believe it will be a sign of the maturing of our movement if we start to do this – if we start to engage the wider ocean that we find ourselves in.
Peace to all Beings,
Philip Carr-Gomm /|\